Some years ago a book was released titled “In the Belly of the Beast.” It consisted of letters written by a man in prison, and detailed his own time in hell in the prison system. The book was quite popular when released, and it gave new meaning to many about what it meant to be in the belly of the beast.
In Matthew’s gospel Christ alludes to his own descent into hell and draws a connection to Jonah’s own time spent in the belly of the beast. (Matthew 12:38-42) Yet Christ wasn’t just preparing himself for a three-day trip to hell – he was preparing himself for taking on the weight of the world’s sins. Sins that you and I and all humanity helped lay upon his shoulders.
I guess that is why when I was growing up most images of Christ that I saw were that of the suffering Christ, the somber Christ, a Christ that was joyless. There was a rather well-known painting of Christ by Warner Sallman, which was painted in dark hues and pictured him looking off sadly in the distance. And there were films like “King of Kings” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” films that seemed to demonstrate that Christ walked about quietly and somberly, forceful yet morose. The weight of the world’s sins were surely great. But where was the joy?
Last week I was with a program sponsored by the Archdiocese of Baltimore called Justice Action Week. It’s what we call an “immersion” program, designed to gather young people from all over the diocese and introduce them to Baltimore – it’s people, it’s poor and suffering, and the agencies and organizations that serve “the least among us.” It’s a prayerful experience – rooted in Catholic social teaching – that I’m sure for some opens the door for a peak into the personal hell suffered by many in our midst every day.
And yet, again and again I saw joy. Our participants had the opportunity to be present to those suffering from AIDS at the Don Miller House or serve the homeless and hungry at Our Daily Bread. We heard of the horrors of human trafficking at YANA House and the struggles of refugees to find new homes through the International Rescue Committee. And at each one of these and many other places our Justice Action Week participants not only demonstrated great compassion for suffering, they brought their joy in God along in great abundance.
A number of times throughout the week the youth sang, and one of the most popular songs was titled “Trading My Sorrows.” The verse went like this:
I'm trading my sorrow, I'm trading my shame
I'm trading my sickness, I'm trading my pain
I'm laying it down for the joy of the Lord
I'm pressed but not crushed, persecuted not abandoned
Struck down but not destroyed
I'm blessed beyond the curse for his promise will endure
And his joy's gonna be my strength
Though the sorrow may last for the night
His joy comes with the morning
And we say “Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, Amen!”
I sang this song along with a group of youth at the Missionaries of Charity House of Hope in East Baltimore. We prayed the rosary with a group of men suffering and dying with HIV/AIDS and then sang with them. And in the midst of hopelessness I saw these men come up out of their own personal hell if just for a few moments and brought to the light through these young people to see again the joy of our Lord. Even Monroe – ailing, losing his sight, in the last days of his earthly life – smiled with happiness at the exuberance, joyfulness and love of God shared with him by the young people. And in those moments I saw the young people also transformed as that love of God reflected back to them.
Christ suffered greatly for us, and there is great suffering in the world today. But I cannot imagine that Christ didn’t also feel the joy of God and shared that joy with those around him. And if we are to be like Christ we are also called at times to journey to the belly of the beast and share our joy with those that feel cut off from the world. And cut off from God. The poor, the homeless, the refugees, the hungry, the suffering and the dying. These are the people that Christ himself would have reached out to. These are the people Christ would have taken the time to be present with. These are the people that more than anything need us to help them to come to the light, come out of the belly of the beast, come to see the joy of the Lord. Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, Amen!